15 June 2012

Not the O.K. Corral

My recent reading includes THE LAST GUNFIGHT by Jeff Guinn.

This is a 2011 publication, from Simon & Schuster, about the showdown popularly known as the Gunfight at the OK Corral. More broadly the book is about Tombstone AZ and its surroundings in its heyday as a mining town.

And a mining town is what it was. Its brief golden age began with a major strike in 1878 of so-called “horn silver”  in the San Pedro Valley. The location of the strike was too far away from Tucson for that town to serve as a home base for the wave of prospectors who inevitably followed the first strike. So Tombstone grew up -- impression one gets from this book is that it almost immediately sprouted up out of the Arizona Territory desert floor!  and fulfilled just that function.

At its height it was important enough that when a San Francisco based acting troupe did a tour of the southwest, bringing a performance of the hot new comic opera “HMS Pinafore” to the unwashed – Tombstone was inevitably one of its stops.

But nowadays we only remember Tombstone for the confrontation on October 26, 1881, when seven men faced off, four to three, separated by only six feet of air, and fired about thirty shots at one another over the course of about as many seconds. It would have been four against four except that Ike Clanton, who had been very busy for hours provoking this confrontation, actually fled the scene just as guns were being drawn, or perhaps even five to four had not another of their companions likewise made himself scarce.

Ike Clanton’s brother and two of his friends were killed in that exchange. Among the party opposing, Doc Holliday and two of the Earps were seriously injured. Only Wyatt Earp walked away unscathed.

The fight was not literally at the OK Corral, although it is known as the “Gunfight at the OK Corral” because that became the title of a movie in 1957, which was still the golden age for westerns.  John Sturges’ movie made no pretense of historical accuracy.

Nonetheless, the connection between this confrontation (a block away) and that particular corral is not entirely accidental.  At one point in the crowded timeline leading to those terrible 30 seconds, the Clantons and their allies postured in that corral, in what Guinn calls “the worst tradition of overweening male pride” they were there “boasting loudly about what they would do if the Earps were foolish enough to bother them any further.”

There are a lot of reasons to recommend this book. I won’t recite them now, though. I’ll simply say that it inspires thought not only about what happened, but about how we know what happened, about the epistemological troubles in sorting through the conflicting accounts.

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Knowledge is warranted belief -- it is the body of belief that we build up because, while living in this world, we've developed good reasons for believing it. What we know, then, is what works -- and it is, necessarily, what has worked for us, each of us individually, as a first approximation. For my other blog, on the struggles for control in the corporate suites, see www.proxypartisans.blogspot.com.